The Maine Women Writers Collection at the University of New England

Article excerpt

In 1959, at what was then Westbrook Junior College for women, English professor and college president's assistant Dorothy M. Healy (1904-1990) invited fellow literature professor Grace A. Dow (1901-1995) to accompany her English novel class on a field trip to Colby College to see the Thomas Hardy collection there. On the return trip, Dow suggested starting a collection of Maine women's writing at Westbrook. The two women met with college president Edward Blewett the next day, and he was enthusiastic. "I thought before things were lost entirely," Grace Dow explained, "it would be a good idea to get together all that we can." (1)

Thus began a collection devoted to honoring and preserving writing by women, material that otherwise was not taken seriously and was at risk of being lost and forgotten. As Sandra M. Gilbert explains, Healy and Dow established the Collection over fifty years ago, "before the so-called second wave of the women's movement produced so much feminist theory that would allow us to analyze and understand collections like this one. So the people who founded it ... had great foresight and fabulous historical and critical imaginations." (2) The Maine Women Writers Collection (MWWC) was supported by a $400 budget and an ambitious goal: to preserve and provide access to writing, letters, and memorabilia by Maine women writers--both those who were famous and those who were more obscure. It was one of the first collections of its kind in the country, and its growth has been bolstered and enriched by the rise of women's studies in the academy and by the women's movements of the past fifty years.


The mission of the Collection is to honor and preserve writing and other forms of cultural production by and about Maine women, as well as to promote research and study on the lives and work of these women and the culture of their times. One of the central aims in collecting such work is to give it a secure, accessible home in Maine, instead of allowing it to be sold or deposited out of state. The MWWC includes many types of material representing women and the numerous academic and cultural subject areas reflected in their work--a unique cross-section of U.S. literary history. It has served a broad user base for many years: students and faculty, outside researchers from many disciplines, casual visitors, and friends patronize the Collection in a variety of ways. The diversity of the collection accounts for its wide appeal and prospects of continued strength, recognition, and relevance to academic trends.



The MWWC now has nearly 8,000 volumes on more than 500 Maine women writers. Its holdings are especially strong in nineteenth and twentieth-century resources. Published material ranges from rare books, pamphlets, and broadsides to newspapers and literary and popular journals. Among the Collection's unpublished materials are travel journals, diaries, correspondence, photographs, manuscripts, artwork, material culture, memorabilia, artists' books, and organizational records. Some of the subject areas most deeply represented are women's literary and social history, the suffrage and women's movements, women's health and medicine, women's sexuality, nature and the environment, women's education, spiritualism, New England studies, children's literature, and Maine history. May Sarton once commended Dorothy Healy on having brought to the Collection both "treasure from the past and recognition to writers of the present." (3) "Treasure from the past" is everywhere to be found in the Collection's holdings, which include rare copies of novels by and the only known daguerreotype of Maine's first novelist, Sally Sayward Barrell Keating Wood; the Sarah Orne Jewett Collection, featuring Jewett's earliest known writings as well as correspondence with Annie Adams Fields, among many others; and the Josephine Diebitsch Peary Collection, reflecting a rich selection of both literary and material culture related to Peary's life and her experience on arctic expeditions prior to her husband s race to be the first to reach the North Pole. …